Empress Matilda

Empress Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England and his first wife Matilda of Scotland. At aged 8, Matilda was sent to Germany in betrothal to Henry V of Germany, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope.

As Henry’s Empress, Matilda wielded authority when her husband was absent. She gained practical experience of exercising political power and widespread popularity as ‘Good Matilda’.  When her husband died in 1125, Matilda was just 23 and childless, so she returned to England.

During her absence, her only legitimate brother William had died in 1120 in the ‘White Ship disaster’, when his boat sank during a drunken crossing of the English Channel. This left King Henry and England without a direct male heir at a time when every Norman succession had been fought over. To ensure the succession, Henry’s barons swore on oath to recognise Matilda, and any of her future children, as heirs to the throne.

In order to secure his Norman borders Matilda’s father arranged for her to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, son of the Count, who was then just 13 years old. After marriage to a powerful Emperor, Matilda protested this match to the son of a mere Count over a decade younger than her. She did this both before and after the marriage took place. The couple were known not to like each other, but after separation and reconciliation, they had three sons, Henry, Geoffrey and William.

When Matilda’s father died her cousin, Stephen Count of Blois, seized the throne and was proclaimed King by the people of London and was swiftly crowned. While her husband campaigned in Normandy Matilda challenged this, supported by her illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. But the English barons claimed that they had been forced by the late King Henry to take their oaths of allegiance to her.

A civil war broke out between the two factions vying for power resulting in a period known as ‘The Anarchy’ and described as ‘when Christ and his saints slept’. In the conflict Stephen’s main supporter was his wife Matilda of Boulogne, who negotiated treaties and rallied troops for her husband. The war went on for almost 20 years, and legend has it that during this time Matilda made a daring escape from the besieged Oxford Castle where she climbed out of a window and escaped by trekking across a frozen river to safety.

At the peak of her power during April-September 1141, Stephen was captured, and while Matilda waited to be crowned Queen, the Londoners who were loyal to Stephen chased her from the city. In contrast to her popularity when Imperial Regent at her first husband’s court, Matilda was branded in chronicles as a haughty woman for her display of power during this time.

Eventually the war moved on to the next generation with both Stephen’s and Matilda’s eldest sons leading factions, and when Stephen’s son died he recognised Matilda’s son Henry his heir.  Henry would go on to become King Henry II of England and marry another powerful woman of the period, Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose first husband was the King of France. During her son’s reign, Matilda ruled for him in Normandy, and eventually died in 1167 at Rouen in France.

Overall, Matilda’s failure to gain power independently of a male was for centuries held as proof that women should not, and could not, sit on the English throne. She has also been marginalised by historians, particularly in the line of succession of British Kings and Queens, despite effectively ruling the country for 6 months in 1141. Matilda deserves to be recognised as a woman who attempted to uphold her rights despite the restraints of her time and in the face of disapproval of her as a woman making a bid for power.


Written for Sheroes of History by Stacey Dodd.


Find out more…

In this episode from the BBC documentary series She Wolves Helen Caster talks about Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdbN7k6Qnc0

The Lady of The English is a historical fiction novel based on the life of the Empress Matilda.

Marjorie Chibnall has written a factual book all about Matilda; The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English 



Benazir Bhutto – Iron Lady of Pakistan

Benazir Bhutto became the first female leader of an Islamic state when she was elected Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988.

This week’s post is inspired by a young woman I heard speak last weekend. I was privileged to hear Malala Yousafzai (a modern day Shero if ever there was one) speak at the launch of her new book in Birmingham on Sunday. When asked the question ‘Is there anyone who inspires you?’ she spoke about Benazir Bhutto. So I thought I would find out a bit more about the woman who inspires the girl who inspires so many others!

Benazir Bhutto was born on 21st June 1953, in Karachi, Pakistan. She was born into a political family; her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was the founder and leader of a political party called the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). She grew up surrounded by politics and learned it’s importance in a society.

As a teenager she left Pakistan to study at Harvard University in America, before coming to the UK to study at Oxford where she became the first asian woman to be elected the president of the Oxford Union!

In 1977, back in Pakistan, there was a miltary coup. Her father had been the Prime Minister until then and was first captured, and eventually hanged by the people who had overthrown his government.

Benazir and her family also suffered badly under the new regime, which was led by a man called General Zia ul Haq. Over the next six years she spent time under house arrest, in ‘police camps’ and in prsion. The worse time of all was when she was held in solitary confinement in a cell in the desert; it was the middle of summer and she said the heat ‘turned my cell into an oven.’

In January 1984 both Benazir and her mother were suffering from bad health and they were finally granted permission from General Zia to leave the country for treatment. They fled to England and as soon as Benazir was well enough she began telling others about the things happening in her country. In 1985 she addressed members of the European Parliament.

In 1988 General Zia died in a plane crash (some think that there was a plot behind this, others don’t – we’ll probably never know.) Benazir was able to return to Pakistan for the first open elections in ten years. She was voted the leader of her father’s political party, so when they won the election that meant she became Prime Minister! This made her Pakistan’s first (and only to date) female PM.

Between her election in 1988 and 1996 Benazir served two terms as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and one term in the middle from 1990-93 as leader of the opposition.

Her time in office was not without controversy, and many people have disagreed with her politics. Despite this she was still a hugely popular figure in Pakistan. The way Pakistan was governed meant that above the Prime Minister was a President – in this case someone who did not see eye to eye with Benazir at all. It was he who dismissed her from office in 1990, ending her first term as PM.

Her supposedly stubborn and authorative ways led her to be nicknamed the ‘Iron Lady’ of Pakistan.

She was accused of corruption more than once and ultimately it was this that led to her second, and final, term as PM ending. She and her children flew to Dubai and then England where she lived in exile for the best part of the next nine years. She continued to be politically active and campaigned for democracy in her homeland.

In 2007 she decided to return to Pakistan, immediately throwing herself back into the political limelight. She knew that she was potentially putting herself in danger, and within hours of arriving home she was attacked by a suicide bomber on a motorbike. Benazir survived, but over a hundred people were killed, with many more injured.

Bhutto began her re-election campaign, hoping to resume her position of Prime Minister. But several weeks before the election there was a second attempt on her life, when an attacker first shot at her, and then detonated a bomb. This time she did not survive her injuries. Benazir Bhutto died in hospital on 27th December 2007.

Whether or not people agree with all of her actions as Prime Minister, it is hard to deny that Benazir Bhutto is never-the-less an inspiration to many. For young women like Malala, who says she wants to become a politician, Benazir serves as an example of what is possible. Her determination and unceasing commitment to her cause, even in the face of danger, encourage people today to keep going.

Find out more:

Benazir wrote a book about her life called Daughter of Destiny, you could read this to find out more about her life in her own words.

This website is all about Benazir Bhutto and has lots of great resources about her life.

The PPP website has lots of audio recordings of Bhutto which you can listen to.

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Franco’s female political prisoners: Tomasa Cuevas

Franco’s female political prisoners: Tomasa Cuevas

Although the victory of the Nationalist army on 1st April 1939 at the hands of leader General Francisco Franco[1] officially put an end to the Spanish Civil War[2] (1939-1939), the violence was far from over.

Now formally instated, the Francoist dictatorship, which had begun establishing control over the country since the start of the Civil War, was faced with the task of rebuilding the nation. This would be done through a combined focus on the regeneration and implementation of National-Catholic values through legal reform, propaganda, and public morality, and the elimination of the so-called enemies of Spain – particularly communists, republicans, and masons – through social denigration, mass imprisonment, torture, and execution. For women, Francoism meant a return to the ideals of Christian motherhood, with the downfall of the nation attributed to female emancipation.

The ‘hungry’ years of the 1940s were bleak with oppression and denunciation, yet the defeated vanquished continued to fight Francoism in clandestine operations regardless of the very real threat of political imprisonment for their actions. Officially, law prohibited the imprisonment of women for political actions. However, women were arrested and incarcerated in their thousands for all manner of crimes against the state, including associating with a suspected radical, and participating in political parties and activities. Disciplined for political and gender transgressions, these women were exemplified as cases of social and moral decrepitude; punishments included naked parades through the streets, violent torture behind bars, and execution.

In spite of such a fate, female activists of the Spanish Communist Party, continued fighting the regime in any way they could. Many, however, were arrested and subjected to the brutalities of prison, including Juana Doña, Soledad Real, and Tomasa Cuevas who together survived a combined total of 55 years in Francoist jails.

Tomasa Cuevas (1917-2007) was born into a working class family in Guadalajara, Spain. She was forced to leave school aged 9 to work 3 jobs and support the family, and shortly thereafter became involved in the Spanish Communist Party. In 1939 she was arrested and spent five years in prison. Released in 1944 and exiled to Barcelona, she continued her involvement with the Communist Party only to be re-arrested the following year and imprisoned again.

After her release a year later, she went into hiding and had her first child in 1947, all the while continuing her participation with the Communist Party. Facing persecution from authorities, she fled Spain in 1953, leaving her daughter, whom she wouldn’t see until 1957. She returned to live clandestinely in Spain in 1961 and only obtained legal documentation in 1976, after the death of Franco and the end of the dictatorship.

Her experiences of prison are documented alongside those of her fellow inmates in her collection of testimonies, available edited and in translation as Prison of Women.[3]

Written by Holly Pike, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, who can be followed on twitter @hjpolyglot


For more information on this topic see

Video on female political prisoners from research at the University of California and the University of Sheffield: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRRPX57ut30

My blog: http://hjpolyglot.wordpress.com

Detailed information about female political prisoners can be found here: http://www.schweich.com/SRPROJV3.html





Maria Bochkareva & the ‘Women’s Battalion of Death’

Maria Bochareva was a determined, skilled and brave Shero who formed and led the very first women’s battalion in the First World War. Emmeline Pankhurst called her ‘The greatest woman of the century’!

Maria was born in Russia in 1889. The start of her story is not a happy one: She came from a poor family and had an abusive father. Determined to escape this life she got married when she was only 15. Unfortunately things didn’t get much better for Maria, as her first husband was also abusive towards her. Maria left him and soon re-married. Her second husband turned out to be not much better than the first, he was a thief and after sticking with him for so long she eventually left him when he too became violent towards her.

In 1914 when the First World War broke out Maria decided she wanted to fight for her country. In her autobiography she wrote that a voice with her called “Go to war to help save the country!”

Now women were not ordinarily allowed to join the Russian Army (nor any European army at that time!) Maria had already been told that she wasn’t allowed to join, so she sent a telegram to Tsar Nicholas II asking his personal permission! At his say so she joined the 25th Reserve Battalion.

Initially the men teased her as she was the only woman, but she soon proved herself a worthy soldier and eventually earned their respect.

Over the next three years she was wounded many times, including one instance when she was paralysed by a piece of shrapnel in her spine. This didn’t stop her though, within six months she had learned to walk again and was back on the battlefield.

She was given several medals, some for her bravery in retrieving wounded and dead men from No Man’s Land. She gradually crept up through the ranks, receiving promotions along with her medals.

The Women's Battalion of Death © IWM (Q 106250)

The Women’s Battalion of Death © IWM (Q 106250)

By 1917 she was a Sergeant and it was at this point that she formed and led the very first all-female battalion.  She convinced the new leader of Russia, Alexander Kerensky that she should be allowed to recruit for an all woman unit.

In a speech she gave to recruit women to the battalion she said:

“Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes. Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke – to protect the freedom of our country.”

Initially 2000 women volunteered to join her ‘1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death’, but by the time she had put them through their paces in training she had whittled it down to a fearsome 300, who were swiftly sent to the front.

The Battalion were known for their bravery and willingness to fight. By this point in the war many of the men had grown weary, but the newly formed women’s unit fought with gusto. On one mission they managed to cross three trench lines and returned with 200 prisoners!

The Women's Battalion of Death, with Maria Bochkareva & Emmeline Pankhurst.

The Women’s Battalion of Death, with Maria Bochkareva & Emmeline Pankhurst.

After this several other women’s battalions were formed but Bochkareva’s was the only one that actually went to the front. While leading her battalion Maria was promoted to Lieutenant and then Captain. She was given a revolver and a sabre that had gold handles!

The Bolsheviks captured Maria more than once. On the first occasion she was sentenced to be executed, but was rescued by a soldier she had fought with in earlier years and was able to leave Russia.

Maria had become really well known all around the world for her courage, bravery and her famous women’s battalion. She travelled first to America, where she met with President Woodrow Wilson. She pleaded with him on behalf of her country, and asked that America intervened in the war. While in the US she dictated her memoirs Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier.

From there she travelled to Britain and had an audience with the King! It was the British War Office that paid for her to return to her homeland.

When she returned to Russia she tried to put together a women’s medical unit, but she was captured again. Sadly this time there was no negotiated release, and on 16th May 1920 she was executed by firing squad.


Find out more…

You could read Maria Bochkareva’s autobiography Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier

Another book, They Fought for the Motherland: Russia’s Women Soldiers in World War 1 and the Revolution tells you more about women’s involvement in the war.

Here is film footage of the Women’s Battallion of Death:





Mary Trevelyan (1897-1983)

Mary Trevelyan founded the International Students House, London.

Mary Trevelyan was born on 22nd January 1897 to the Reverend George Philip Trevelyan and his wife, Monica Phillips. Both Mary’s grandfathers were vicars and she was raised in a family committed to public service.The eldest of six children, Mary had a privileged childhood in a well-connected, upper-middle class family. As well as being the great great-granddaughterof a baronet, she was second cousin to the historian, G.M. Trevelyan. Mary Trevelyan grew into a determined, idealistic and energetic adult. Her friend, the poet T. S. Eliot, described her as ‘industrious, honest, and moderately temperate’ [1].

After beginning her career as a music teacher, Mary Trevelyan took up the post of Warden of the Student Christian Movement’s Student Movement House (SMH) in 1932. Situated at 32 Russell Square in London’s Bloomsbury, SMH was a non-residential club for overseas students. Among its members in the 1930s was Jomo (Johnstone) Kenyatta, later the first President of Kenya. Some members were Britons from overseas, such as those of missionary families.

In 1937, Trevelyan took a sabbatical to travel to Ceylon, India, Burma, Singapore, Penang, China, Japan, America and Canada. She wanted to learn about the worlds into which the international students were returning [2]. Trevelyan was particularly inspired by her visit to the residential International House of New York in the USA, and she returned to London fully committed to promoting internationalism and peaceful co-operation among young people.

From 1938, as SMH Warden, Trevelyan, led a fund-raising campaign to pay for a new building for the club. SMH’s Russell Square premises was set to be destroyed in plans for the London University extension of 1939. In April of that year, SMH moved into new premises at 103 Gower Street.[3]

During the Second World War, Trevelyan remained in post until September 1944, when she was granted leave of absence by SCM to go to Brussels to run a YMCA leave hostel for allied soldiers. After returning in May 1945, tensions developed between Trevelyan and her SCM employers. In 1946, after beginning an appeal for another new building Trevelyan resigned from her post and left SMH. But she continued to dream ‘of the great International House which we would set up in London’ in the model of the International Houses of the United States.[4] This residential House would offer greater opportunity for students of different backgrounds to ‘get to know each other better’[5]. Trevelyan’s dream became reality in May 1965 when International Students House was opened in Park Crescent. The current International Students House stands as her legacy.

Written for Sheroes of History by Emma Jolly, genealogist & writer. http://emmajolly.co.uk/

Useful Links

International Students House official website: https://www.ish.org.uk/

Student Christian Movement http://www.movement.org.uk/


[1] Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1691.2, T. S. Eliot’s Letters to Mary Trevelyan (1940-1956), 28 September 1946.

[2]Mary Trevelyan, From The Ends of the Earth: An account of the author’s experiences as Warden of the Student Movement House (London: Faber & Faber, 1942), p. 70.

[3] 101 Gower Street was acquired in 1943 [SCM: SMH: S1. Sixth Annual Report, 1943-44].

[4]Trevelyan, From The Ends of the Earth., p. 115.

[5]Trevelyan, From The Ends of the Earth, p. 115.

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Yennenga – Warrior Princess

Yannenga was an African princess who lived over 900 years ago. She was known as a brave warrior and famous for her strong spirit. Today she is considered to be the mother of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso and is has become a cultural icon.

Much of what we know about Yennenga today comes from oral tradition; stories that have been passed down through history. In some stories Yennenga is known as ‘Poko’ or ‘Yalanga’.

Yannenga was the daughter of King Nedega, who ruled over the Dagomaba Kingdom (which is now part of Northern Ghana.) Yennenga’s three brothers all commanded their own battalions, and as she grew Yennenga also learnt the skills of a warrior. She was an expert horse rider and learnt how to use a javelin, spear and bow. She was a match for any of the men in her father’s armies, and soon she led her own command.

She led her army to success in many battles, especially against the neighbouring Malinké people. Across the land she became known for her skills in battle, becoming a feared warrior. She is sometimes known as ‘Yennenga the Svelte’, as she was very tall and slim; and sometimes mistaken for a man when she rode with her battlion in her battle clothes. She was so important to her father’s battle plans that as she reached the age where most of her friends were getting married, he banned her from doing so.

Yennenga continued to be obedient to her father, but she was tired of being in battles all the time, and wanted to fall in love and marry, like so many of her friends had. No matter how much she asked, her father continued to refuse her this request.

One story tells us that Yennenga planted some wheat outside of her father’s house. When the wheat grew, instead of harvesting it she left it to wither and die. When her father angrily asked her why she had done this she told him that he was letting her rot, just like the wheat had done.

He wasn’t very happy that she had spoken to him so boldly and some stories say that he imprisoned her! Whether or not she was imprisoned by her father, very soon she escaped and disappeared into the forest on her stallion, dressed as a man so she wouldn’t be quickly found.

No-one knows for sure how long she was there, but at some point she met a well known elephant hunter called Riale. He soon discovered that she was a woman, and a skilled hunter as well. Soon romance blossomed and Yennenga and Riale fell in love and had a child. They called their son Ouedraogo, which means ‘Male Horse’ or ‘Stallion’, this was as a tribute to the horse which had taken Yennenga into the forest where she met Riale.

Ouedraogo grew to become an important leader and founded the Mossi Kingdom, which is why Yennenga is known as the mother of the Mossi people.

Today in Burkina Faso, and across the region Yennenga’s legacy remains. There are statues of her, roads named after her and even an African film award which is known as the Yennenga Gold Stallion and has a golden woman riding a horse with a spear on top. The national football team of Burkina Faso is even called  ‘Les Étalons’ which means ‘The Stallions’, after Yennenga’s famous horse.

Her story has inspired many, who see her as a symbol of a woman with a strong character and an independent mind.


Find out more:

It’s quite hard to find information about Yennenga, as so much of what we know is from oral traditions.

UNESCO have a fantastic resource of their website with several interactive ways to find out more about Yennenga and her story.






Lorna Wing

Lorna Wing (1928 – 2014) became one of the world’s leading experts in autism; she died in June this year.

Lorna was born in Kent and trained as a medical doctor, specialising in psychiatry.  She met her future husband while studying medicine and they had a daughter, who was diagnosed in 1962 at the age of three with autism.  This led Lorna to change the focus of her work to childhood developmental disorders and her work was ground-breaking.

As a researcher she refined the sub-groups within a diagnosis of autism, coined the term Asperger’s syndrome (to describe behaviours observed by the Austrian psychiatrist, Hans Asperger) and contributed to the eventual development of autism as a spectrum condition.  She also described the “triad of impairments” which all people with autism show.  Researchers following Lorna owe a great debt to her work.

Lorna was one of the founders in 1962 of the National Autistic Society.  She published many books and articles.  The Autistic Spectrum, for parents and professionals, first published in 1996  is still popular and a valuable reference. She campaigned for better understanding of services needed by people with autism and their families. Her work was honoured with the award of an OBE in 1994.

To show how far we have travelled since Lorna Wing began her work, we need to understand that autism was a little known condition when her own child was diagnosed.  At that time most children (and adults) with autism would live in hospitals and institutions.  There would be no attempt at education; instead staff would concentrate on trying to train the children to have limited self-care skills.  Mothers were routinely blamed by doctors for their children’s difficulties in socialisation.

Lorna used her scientific training to challenge how autism was understood and to inform professional best practice and expectations.  Her work, with which she remained involved, until the end of her life, has been hugely influential in bringing about change and improving the quality of life for those with autistic spectrum disorder and their families.


Written for Sheroes of History by Geraldine Dora: “About me – I work in admin in Higher Education and I have an autistic child myself (he is grown up now).  Lorna Wing’s books certainly helped me over 20 years ago understand my son’s behaviour at a time when I was having difficulty obtaining a diagnosis and thus appropriate support and education for him.  She gave me the language to describe what I was seeing.”

Find out more:

You can read the National Autistic Society’s obituary for her here and a more detailed obituary from The Telegraph here.

A number of Lorna’s books are available to buy & read.

Watch this interview with Lorna here: